Jesse Jerry Gardona, a special agent assigned to the anti-smuggling squad of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will be sentenced next Tuesday in federal court on charges of bribery and harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.
The 41-year-old Gardona, a 12-year veteran of the INS, was liked by his colleagues and respected even by the defense attorneys he sometimes opposed in court. And yet, according to documents filed in federal District Court, Gardona developed a sideline of slipping some of the immigrants he captured out of INS custody and ransoming them off to family members scattered across the United States. His going rate: $300 a head.
Gardona‘s case poses questions of corruption at the INS, as numerous officials from the immigration agency worked closely with Gardona. INS officials declined to comment on the matter pending Gardona’s sentencing. The case also raises tricky issues for the Department of Justice, issues akin to those facing the LAPD in the Rampart scandal: Its prosecutors must now decide how to handle pending and past cases tainted by Gardona‘s role as lead investigator.
More broadly, government officials might ponder why Gardona, a onetime Border Patrol agent with an unblemished record, would forsake his sworn duty and join with the ”coyotes,“ the smugglers who were his official quarry.
Considering the paltry figures involved, money doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. Nor need we accept the explanation offered by Gardona and his attorney, that he was ”moved by the plight“ of the immigrants he had arrested and sold them off to help them avoid deportation.
What seems apparent from the facts of his case is that Gardona fell into corruption incrementally, first doing favors for informants, then becoming their accomplice. Along the way, with the autonomy he earned over his years in the field, Gardona came to assume the role of final arbiter in deciding the fate of those people who fell under his control. To follow his path is to glimpse the underside of Los Angeles — a world of fear, extortion and indentured servitude.
FBI Special Agent Ronald Twersky spent 10 months investigating Gardona‘s case, speaking to his accomplices and to the people he ransomed and their families. As Twersky described in an affidavit for a search warrant filed last May, the nexus for Gardona’s ransom racket was an auto-body shop in East L.A. owned by a Mexican immigrant named Jose Jesus Quintanilla-Guzman. Frequented by gang members and operated without a license, the body shop doubled as a ”chop shop,“ where stolen cars were broken down or modified and re-sold, and also as a staging base for a cocaine-distribution ring with connections in Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Las Vegas.
Quintanilla‘s criminal record shows more than 10 arrests in Los Angeles County since 1986, another arrest in Las Vegas, and a federal conviction on November 15, 1990, for drug trafficking. Quintanilla also was deported twice, once in 1993 and again in 1995.
Gardona was introduced to Quintanilla by Arturo Munoz Olivares, another Mexican immigrant, who grew up with Quintanilla in the state of Zacatecas. Olivares’ son Jorge worked as a courier in Quintanilla‘s drug operation, and was ”one of about 10 young men who have gone to prison for their work for Quintanilla,“ according to the affidavit. Olivares himself has two felony convictions, one from 1996 and another in 1998.
In L.A., Olivares employed undocumented immigrants as pushcart vendors selling popsicles in the barrios of the Eastside. Known as ”El Gordo,“ Spanish for ”The Fat One,“ with his weight estimated at more than 400 pounds, Olivares was another regular at Quintanilla’s chop shop.
Olivares protected his business by cultivating ties to Agent Gardona. According to Gardona, Olivares would occasionally tip him off to drop houses where immigrants were stashed after their arrival in Los Angeles. In return, Gardona ignored Olivares‘ routine use of illegal vendors. At the same time, Olivares represented himself to newly arrived immigrants as an INS official. According to one confidential informant, he also provided them with immigration documents that later proved to be fraudulent.
As their relationship progressed, Olivares introduced Gardona to Quintanilla, who in turn also provided Gardona with information on drop houses. The circle was closed when Gardona approached Quintanilla for a loan. He had started two side businesses, one operating vending machines and another running public pay phones. When Quintanilla loaned Gardona more than $20,000 to purchase more machines, the snitch was elevated to partner.
According to one employee of the chop shop interviewed by the FBI’s Twersky, Gardona often visited the East L.A. body shop, and on at least one occasion offered gang members who hung out there $500 apiece for stolen pay phones. Quintanilla openly bragged about his association with the federal agent, even suggesting that if things ever got ”too hot“ in the drug business, he could draft Gardona as a courier, ”because Gardona had a badge and the police would not suspect him.“
The vending and telephone businesses apparently failed to return much on Gardona‘s investment, because he soon had to resort to other means to pay off the debt. The currency he settled on was pollos, Spanish for ”chickens,“ the street term for those smuggled illegally into the country. On at least two occasions documented by the FBI, the first in the summer of 1998, Gardona provided Quintanilla with batches of more than 10 immigrants rounded up from stash houses by the INS.
According to an informant inside Quintanilla’s operation, the pollos were escorted by ”Gardona and two other plainclothes men wearing guns and law-enforcement badges.“ The delivery from the INS was made in Gardona‘s white van. Quintanilla paid Gardona cash on the spot — $300 apiece — for the immigrants, and then set about contacting their U.S.-based relatives to arrange for ransom. Quintanilla demanded $1,000 to $1,500 each, plus airfare.
The informant said he inquired what would happen to the immigrants who could not come up with the money. He was told they’d be put to work selling ice cream for El Gordo. As for the immigrants themselves, it was never clear to them who was in authority. One Quintanilla associate believed that Olivares, El Gordo, was an INS agent. In the end it didn‘t much matter: For the pollos, the payoffs in Los Angeles were just another bribe to be paid on the long trek from Central America.
These weren’t the only incidents by which investigators learned of illegal associations between Gardona and Quintanilla. In one case, a source reported that Gardona provided Quintanilla with three female immigrants, whom Quintanilla then passed on to work as dancers for a friend who operates a downtown club. Gardona later dropped by the chop shop and passed around photographs of the three women striking poses in the nude. Gardona also reportedly intervened when Quintanilla‘s brother was captured by the INS in Arizona.
Gardona’s underground connections came to light when Quintanilla, the trafficker in immigrants, cocaine and stolen cars, was himself caught trying to slip across the border. The bust was made in June of 1999 by border guards in San Ysidro. When they learned that Quintanilla was in fact a Mexican citizen, Quintanilla advised them that he worked as an informant for Gardona.
Soon after, the Department of Justice added cocaine trafficking to the charges against Quintanilla. By July, a Quintanilla courier began cooperating with the government, and disclosed Gardona‘s activities in detail. That same month, an assistant U.S. attorney informed the FBI of concerns about Gardona, and a full investigation was initiated.
On July 10, 2000, Quintanilla pleaded guilty to importing cocaine and was sentenced to 20 years in federal custody. Gardona was indicted on May 18, 2000, and pleaded guilty in September.
Gardona will learn his fate when he is sentenced next week, but as with the LAPD and Rafael Perez, the case could have continuing ramifications for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and for the INS. The case has already had a distinct impact on the future of a Latino travel agent named Alfonso Chicas-Montejo.
A native of Guatemala who maintains legal residency in the U.S., Chicas ran afoul of the law after providing plane tickets for a batch of pollos who were taken into custody by Gardona. Chicas claimed he did not know the ticket-holders were in the country illegally, but he was charged as a co-conspirator in a smuggling operation. Gardona was the lead investigator in the case, and asserted that Chicas was a co-conspirator.
By the time Chicas went on trial in January 2000, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eliott Krieger, was already aware that Gardona was under investigation. Yet Krieger allowed Gardona to play a central role in the case, sitting at his side in the courtroom and handling the witnesses, each of them immigrants whom Gardona had arrested — and some of whom he had ransomed to Quintanilla.
Chicas was convicted, but appealed the verdict after Gardona was indicted. Last month, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson found that the prosecution had been compromised, and set a new trial for December 26.
To Chicas’ attorney, Daniel Aragon, the decision to keep Gardona on the case represents a clear case of prosecutorial misconduct. ”They knew he was under investigation, and they still let him direct the case,“ Aragon said in an interview. He said the U.S. Attorney‘s Office should have dropped its prosecution of Chicas, a father of four who adamantly maintains his innocence. ”They’re not interested in justice,“ Aragon said of the prosecutors. ”They‘re in the business of getting convictions.“
Krieger was on vacation and did not return calls from the Weekly for comment, but said in an October 27 court hearing that, while he was aware Gardona was under investigation, ”We did not know that any of the dealings had to do with any prosecutions in our office.“
Judge Pregerson did not challenge Krieger on what he knew and when, but said any suggestion of misconduct should have been revealed at trial. ”What was known at the time was he engaged in very serious misconduct . . . Had I known that at the time, we would have had a very different examination, probably wouldn’t have had a trial.“
In fact, Pregerson recalled in remarks from the bench that he‘d been concerned at the time of the trial with Gardona’s ”forceful“ glaring at the immigrant witnesses who took the stand against Chicas. Addressing Gardona, Pregerson said, ”I saw some power between you and the witnesses, and it caused me some concern.“ Later, the judge commented, ”Having examined Mr. Gardona, having seen the way that he interacted with witnesses on the witness stand, I would, you know, make a factual finding that I found his interaction with them to be intimidating.“
Aside from the new trial for Chicas, the INS must consider the scope of possible corruption among its Los Angeles agents. After all, one of the informants in the case said Gardona was accompanied by what appeared to be two other agents when he delivered a group of immigrants to Quintanilla. In addition, in a separate case, an INS officer was charged with sexual harassment and soliciting bribes from women seeking political asylum.
Douglas Ingraham, an attorney representing two plaintiffs in the case, said he sees a systemic problem at the INS. ”It‘s a failure of the INS to properly supervise its agents.“
Chicas’ attorney Aragon said that he fears the agency will simply seek to cover up misconduct by its agents. Noting that the Department of Justice has been appointed to oversee the LAPD, Aragon challenged the INS to pursue an in-house investigation. ”There‘s no way that other people, other agents, didn’t know about this,“ he said.